The Oilers have fallen to 4-2-1 under Ken Hitchcock with their loss to Dallas on Monday. In those 7 games, the Oilers have scored only 12 goals in regulation time (1.7/game). In 20 games under Todd McLellan this season, the Oilers scored 54 goals during regulation time (2.7/game). Many were expecting the Oilers to score fewer goals under Hitchcock, but this is ridiculous. Secondary scoring was a concern before the coaching change, but it has dropped off considerably in Hitchcock’s tenure thus far.
Hitch’s first move was to create “The Identity Line” featuring Kyle Brodziak, Zack Kassian, and the struggling Milan Lucic. The idea was to get Lucic playing a more simple and physical game by pairing him with players that have similar styles. McLellan had Connor McDavid paired with Leon Draisaitl at the time of his departure, and Hitchcock didn’t deviate from that. However, he changed McDavid’s usage by double shifting him late in games, especially during games in which there was minimal special teams play. McDavid has been given shifts with a rotating cast of wingers playing on an otherwise scarcely used 4th line. Hitch has said that you have to have two 3rd lines if you plan on winning in the Western Conference. That’s a fancy way of saying that you need every line to contribute something to the game. That hasn’t been what the Oilers forwards have been delivering to their new coach so far.
1.7 goals per regulation contest isn’t going to get the job done on most nights. That’s asking an awful lot of the defence and goaltending, which has inarguably been quite good under Hitchcock so far. The Oilers have allowed 16 goals in regulation time in those 7 games, but 3 of those have been empty netters… 13 non-empty net goals against in regulation time in 7 games (1.85/game) is great!
The Oilers powerplay has gone 4/17 under Hitchcock (23.5%), which is pretty good… but that accounts for 1/3 of their offence in regulation time under Hitchcock! At even strength, the Oilers have 8 goals in regulation time in 7 games (1.14/game). 1.14 goals per game at even strength isn’t going to cut it. I addressed Chiarelli’s plan for this season in my last article. He is banking on guys who are either nearing or at their peaks to produce some offence for the Oilers. There is offence to be had on this roster beyond McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins. It’s up to the coach to get the most out of the players that he has by putting them in positions to succeed. I have loved almost everything about what Hitchcock has done in Edmonton so far, but I don’t think that he has found the best line combinations yet.
Three of the top 6 forwards are set in stone: McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins. That leaves 3 wing spots available in the top 6. Those spots are currently being occupied by Drake Caggiula, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Alex Chiasson. 9 of Caggiula’s 10 points this season have come at even strength, which is the best total by an Oiler not named McDavid, Draisaitl, or Nugent-Hopkins. He has been surprisingly effective this year. He has been feisty in the offensive zone in creating turnovers, and he has shown that he has decent hands. I’m alright with Caggiula being in the top 6… for now. Hitchcock has taken responsibility for Puljujarvi’s development, and he has claimed that Puljujarvi will be in a top 6 role within a month (quote from Puljujarvi’s call-up prior to the game in LA). It’s clear that Hitchcock plans to have Puljujarvi in the top 6. I’m also good with Puljujarvi being in a top 6 role because he’s not going to learn anything playing under 10 minutes per night with guys that don’t suit his style of play.
My problem is with Chiasson. Yes, Chiasson is 3rd on the team with 11 goals; but he has just 2 points at even strength in his last 12 games. Hitchcock said after Chiasson’s first game on the top line with McDavid and Draisaitl that he looked tired because of all of the responsibility that was being placed on him. Chiasson has been producing on the powerplay, and he has been a great penalty killer. Chiasson’s lack of production at even strength is a sign that he shouldn’t be in the top 6. He needs to be getting ice time because he’s been scoring, but he needs his even strength minutes cut down so that he can be more effective in all situations.
Meanwhile, NHL pre-season scoring leader Ty Rattie has been either healthy scratched or stapled to the bench under Hitchcock. Here is Rattie’s ice time for each of the last 7 Oilers games:
@ SJ- 8:30
@ ANA- 8:22
@ LA- 3:32
vs DAL- Scratch
vs LA- Scratch
vs VGK- 9:38
@ DAL- 12:34
I repeat, Rattie led the NHL in scoring this pre-season! Rattie had 9 points in 14 games playing with McDavid at the end of last season. Rattie has been solid this season. Rattie lost his spot on the top line because of injury, not because of his play. He had 2 points in 4 games before getting hurt in game 5 against Boston. He had 2 points in his first 3 games after coming back from his injury, and he wasn’t playing with McDavid in any of those games (although one of his points was on the PP against TB). He was held pointless in his next 2 games- the last two games of McLellan’s tenure.
Then Hitchcock was hired.
Hitchcock had coached Rattie previously in St Louis. Rattie couldn’t earn a role on Hitch’s team at that point in time. It seemed as though Rattie had started off behind the 8-ball this time around with Hitch because of that. However, Hitch did say that Rattie is a more complete player now than he was in St Louis when asked about him. He said that he could potentially see Rattie as a top 6 forward. The good news is that Rattie was elevated to what appeared to be the 2nd line with Nugent-Hopkins and Caggiula last night against Dallas. Rattie’s ice time increased to 12:34. I sincerely hope that is a sign of things to come. Rattie absolutely needs to be in the top 6. Of the young Oilers wingers, he is the one that is the most equipped to produce offensively right now. Rattie’s jump in the line-up came at the cost of Puljujarvi, who also had a solid game. It should have come at the cost of Chiasson.
The lines should be different on Wednesday because HOPEFULLY, the Oilers will have McDavid and Spooner back (although that isn’t a guarantee if they were both ill enough to miss the Dallas game). The Oilers could also potentially have Valentin Zykov by then, assuming that his immigration paperwork gets finished in time. Here’s what we know about Hitchcock’s preferences for the lines. He likes McDavid and Draisaitl together. He likes that “Identity” line, but he did say that he’s using them like a 3rd line until they get another line going. That implies that ideally, they would be a 4th line, or line 3B if you will. He has said that Chiasson looked tired from being tasked with so much responsibility on the top line and top powerplay unit. He has also said that he likes Spooner better as a centre because he can use his speed more, and he said that Spooner needs to be in the top 9. He said it was his bad for not putting him there, yet he hasn’t put Spooner back in the top 9 since that interview. It seems to me like Chiasson and Spooner make up two thirds of what should be the 3rd line. That would leave one of Jujhar Khaira or Zykov to assume the final spot on that line. Assuming that the line-up will be at full-strength on Wednesday (not including Tobias Rieder of course), here’s what I think the lines should be based on what hints that Hitchcock has dropped during interviews:
There are three lines that have scoring potential there, and the Identity line has to get one sooner or later with how well they have been cycling the puck in the offensive zone. Rattie needs to be playing in the top 6 in place of Chiasson. Chiasson should be more effective at even strength with fewer minutes, and he will still be on the powerplay. His being on the 3rd line would not hurt his production. Spooner playing with two guys that can set up shop in front of the net and finish plays off is intriguing to me. I don’t anticipate that being a strong line defensively, but they should be fine playing against weaker competition lower in the line-up. As for Khaira, he has not been the same player he was last season. He did score a nice goal last night, but he does not need to be playing every night. Hitch could play him in place of Zykov on line 3B some nights, or in place of Brodziak on the Identity line sometimes.
That’s how I think the lines should look based on the hints that Hitch has dropped during interviews so far. Here’s how I personally think the lines should be:
The forwards in the top 6 are the same in both line-ups, but the combinations there are slightly different. I would split up McDavid and Draisaitl. They are dynamic together at times, but the Oilers need a 2nd line that can produce offence at even strength. My line of thinking is that you’ve got 3 star centres, and one of them needs to play on his own line. Out of McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins, who is the most equipped to play on his own line? I’d say it’s the winner of the last 2 scoring titles. McDavid is good enough to drive his own line. Caggiula has been a nice complement to McDavid with his tenacity, and Rattie has shown great chemistry with him. Draisaitl’s biggest flaw is his play in his own end. Nugent-Hopkins was successful with McDavid because he was so reliable defensively that it allowed McDavid to “cheat” on occasion. If anyone can benefit from the best two-way player on the team, it’s Draisaitl. Nugent-Hopkins might benefit from Draisaitl’s size as well. Hitchcock is planning on resting Nuge during practices to save some wear and tear on that small frame of his. Draisaitl could take some of the physical burden away from Nuge if they were playing together. The 2nd line would be stacked with Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl together.
The bottom line is that the Oilers aren’t getting nearly enough out of the players that they have offensively. There’s offence to be had on this roster. The coach just needs to put the right guys in situations where they can succeed. He did it for Lucic, but that isn’t happening with Chiasson and Rattie right now. Chiasson doesn’t have the gas to play top minutes consistently, and Rattie doesn’t have the skill set to play in the bottom 6. The dude can straight up snipe! He needs to play with skilled players. It’s time to make that switch. Chiasson needs to be playing lower in the line-up, and Rattie HAS TO be elevated into the top 6 if Hitchcock wants to maximize the output of this roster.